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The ‘autism lady’: Diary of an educational journey to St Helena (part 4)

London headteacher Jude Ragan is spending 21 days working to assist autism teaching on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. She will be blogging about her experiences on the TES Professional blog. Here is part four.

It is hard to believe I have been on St Helena for three weeks already. And yet I feel at home here, despite the speed of the time passing. Working with the four schools of this tiny island has been hugely rewarding. They are incredibly welcoming, whether you are a local – a “Saint” – or a newcomer like me. It is a small, safe environment.

Being here has had a positive impact on me. I have had to make some adjustments, such as learning to be patient. It is a long wait before anything arrives, for example. Impulsive by nature, at Queensmill School in London, the school where I am headteacher, if I have an idea about something the children might like, that might motivate them to engage with us, I can rush out and buy it and give it a try. Here, one has to wait for many weeks for anything to arrive by boat or to be ordered by a local shop.

The latter has made me thankful I sent out resources ahead of me, rather than trying to react once I arrived. These resources have been a big success with both staff and students. They love the dog that laughs when you make eye contact with it and the penguins that march up the staircase to race down the ski slope. The dressing up things – wigs, silly glasses - have been an eye opener for staff as they watch children having fun with them and interacting with each other. These things have reiterated how learning and practicing communication can be fun and incorporate so many social skills too.

They have wonderful resources of their own, of course. The island swimming pool is chief among them. Right on the edge of the port, in earshot of crashing waves, it is an Olympic-sized outdoor delight where the wonderful resident swimming coach works with school staff to teach the children. Along with having a great time, the children practice communication skills and, of course, all of the life skills of undressing and dressing. The plan is to expand the trips to incorporate stopping off at places like the coffee shop, too, in future.

The latter addition is just one of the outcomes of my time here. It has been such a fantastic, collaborative process. Together, school staff and I have updated Individual Education Plans and National Curriculum Assessments according to the new ideas we have for working with each of the three pupils.

I have been comforted by the fact that there will be help for the implementation of the new ideas I have introduced. I will be available by Skype once I leave, but, wonderfully, a Saint who has been teaching in a special school in Gloucestershire for a decade has just returned to the island and been recruited to work with these secondary-aged students with autism. She will be able to carry on with ease the things that I have started.

That said, this trip has demonstrated to me just how small the world can be with a little effort and the wonders of modern technology. The point was brought home when, after several days, I suddenly realised I recognised someone in a photo on the school wall. She was standing with one of our students here, who recently moved to St Helena from the Falkland Islands. She was his teacher at the latter and also, as it happened, a teacher at Queensmill until just over a year ago. She had left to travel and teach in new places and here she was, in a picture taken on one remote island now on a wall on another remote island that I happened to be on.

We have emailed and she has told me chapter and verse about his schooling In the Falklands, which of course is hugely helpful to us.

I know this is a big world, because it took me five days to get here from London, but this world of autism support really is a small world after all.

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